The official version is that in 1955 an advert for an American department store Santa phone line misprinted the phone number, sending callers to NORAD’s predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead. Colonel Harry Shoup, in charge that night, assigned an officer to give other callers a “location” for Santa and his sleigh, and so the tradition was born. There are variations on this foundation story, but basically it happened by accident.
Perhaps the US military saw a public relations opportunity, or a Cold War message about how the free world has Santa and those communists do not. But the best answer really seems to be that Americans love Christmas, and that modern “radar tracking” Santa just added to the magic.
Eugene Byrne is a visiting research fellow at the University of the West of England
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine